...in which I share some of my favorite medieval research resources and methods for the benefit of others interested in also writing about the Middle Ages

Friday, April 25, 2008

Book Review: Walk With Peril, by D.V.S. Jackson

Book Summary (from dust jacket):

Two young men walked with peril during those months of 1415. One was Robert Fairfield, in danger because of his religion, and because of the enmity of the Duke of York. The other was King Henry V, who knew he was always surrounded by deceit and treachery and who let no man stand behind him.

Robert Fairfield came from Wales to London to become King Henry’s loyal follower in the hope of winning the accolade of knighthood. Since Robert was poor he rode alone, with his long sword, a belt of golden bells, and a shield bearing the device of a sleeping lion on a green field and the legend “Wake Me No Man.” The wealthy merchant, Lewis Chappelle, hurrying citywards with his lovely daughter Constance, grudgingly asks Robert to join his party for the sake of his sword, and then to stay in the vast mansion by the Thames. Here Robert sense strange and secret currents, and is on his guard as a stranger and as a member of the Lollards, the sect that even so early believed in religious freedom and whose members were now banned, persecuted and killed. And in a tavern brawl he met again the Duke of York, cousin to the king, whose enmity Robert had gained in Wales. York’s hatred is to follow Robert through the roads and battlefields of France to Robert’s mortal peril.

This is an exciting and colorful novel about two fascinating men. Robert is brave, resourceful, loyal, and his love story is as touching as it is honorable. But even more fascinating is the picture of Henry V, brave, determined, hard and cruel on behalf of England, kind and winning to his friends, who moves alone among his courtiers and his men, with his hidden dread of the assassin’s knife or poisoned cup, yet always pressing forward to make England strong at home and abroad.

It isn’t often that I write book reviews, here or on any of my other blogs. In fact, I’ve never written a book review before, aside from the Amazon.com-type. But for anyone interested in King Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt, I found a book I’d like to share with you.

Actually, “re-found” would be more accurate. I first read this novel probably in junior high, and most likely because my sister was reading it. She’d checked it out from our local library. Judging from how much I had forgotten, much of it must have been over my head at the time. But I was struck enough with the characters, that I remember going back to the library, checking it out for myself, and reading it at least a couple more times between junior high and when I graduated from high school.

Oddly enough, I never paid any attention to the title or author. I just remembered that it had a light blue/gray binding (without a dust jacket) and I always knew which shelf to look on at the library to find it. Sadly, my carelessness meant that when I reflected on the book many years later, long after it no longer sat on that library shelf, I had no way of tracking it down to ever read it again.

Then, this past March while visiting my sister in Salt Lake City, the subject of this long lost, but never quite forgotten, book surprisingly sprang up in a conversation between us. My sister remembered it, too, and while she had also forgotten the title, she at least remembered that the author’s name started with a J, “…something like Jackson or Johnson”, she said.

Oh, for the wonderful and blessed miracle of modern technology! I immediately jumped on her computer and Googled, “novels about Henry V by Jackson”, or something like that. And what should come up almost immediately but the title: Walk With Peril. “That’s it!” my sister exclaimed. We read a brief blurb together to confirm it was the same book, whipped over to Amazon.com, and I promptly ordered two used copies, one for me and one for her. Because, of course, the book had since gone long out of print.

I just finished reading this splendid book again. I was afraid I might be disappointed, that the book might be somehow “less” than I remembered from my youth. Instead, it was much, much more.

The subtitle of Walk With Peril is An Exciting Novel of Henry V and Agincourt. Fortunately, that subtitle only appears on the dust jacket, so I’d never seen it on the bookbinding or on the inside pages of the book. Otherwise, I might have dismissed it as “a book about battles”, instead of “a book about characters” and never picked it up to read it. I’ve never been much interested in reading books about battles. But catch me up in a character, and I’ll go all the way with him.

And that’s what Jackson does in Walk With Peril. She spends the first ten chapters developing the hero (Robert Fairfield), the woman he loves (Constance Chappelle), her merchant father, a surly servant who ultimately becomes Robert’s most faithful companion, and even in some nearly heartbreaking scenes, a great mastiff dog. (Don’t worry, she stays strictly in Robert’s POV to do so.) By the time the hero Robert joins the troops of King Henry V and follows him on the campaign that will end in the famous battle of Agincourt, one is no longer worried about it being a “battle book”. One merely is as ready to follow Robert wherever he goes, as Robert is ready to follow the king.

Walk With Peril was published in 1959. If you’re looking for a “hot romance”, this book isn’t it. The romance is tender and touching and a little sad. It is also honorable, for above all things, Robert Fairfield is an honorable man, but the author does leave us with hope for him and Constance at the end.

Neither is this book filled with page after page of detailed battle scenes. Yes, the battle comes…more than one, in fact…but once Robert leaves Constance to follow the king, the focus shifts to introducing the characters of Henry V and his plotting cousin, the Duke of York. And what characters they are! Each one shines like a jewel…each a flawed jewel, perhaps, but each all the more human and, therefore, intriguing and heroic for it.

This book read almost new to me. I was shocked by how little I actually remembered. But two very, very brief scenes had continued to hover in my memory all these years, and influenced my writing in ways known only to myself and to Heaven. (No, I promise I didn’t plagiarize!) The scenes—actually, they were more like mere moments in the book—had somehow melded in my mind as one, but on my recent re-reading, I discovered they were, indeed, two separate moments within two separate scenes. I’ll not tell you what they were, for what touched me may well not touch you, and each reader should have the joy of discovering favorite, influential scenes and moments of his or her own.

Now see? This is why you will not often find me writing a book review. Because I ramble and blather and once I start talking about a book I love, I find it very difficult to stop.

Simply put: In my opinion (for all book reviews are basically one person’s opinion), Walk With Peril is a long lost jewel of an historical novel. I would love to see it reprinted some day. But for now, you can find used copies for as little as $0.01 on Amazon. (Used copies are also available at Alibris and Barnes and Noble.)

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Modifying posting schedule

I am now entering an intensive revision stage for my upcoming medieval novel, tentatively titled: Illuminations of the Heart. As a result, I will for the next few months no longer have time to post here twice a month. I will try to maintain a monthly research update, so continue to check back periodically.

Thank you to all who support medieval research with joyce by your faithful reading of my posts. I hope you have found them useful, and will continue to do so in the future!

If any of you are interested in reading my medieval novel, Loyalty's Web, before my sequel, Illumiations of the Heart, comes out, Loyalty's Web is now available for 10% off at both Amazon.com AND Barnesandnoble.com. Isn't competition wonderful?

Friday, April 4, 2008

Loyalty's Web: now on sale

Loyalty's Web is now available at a 10% discount on Amazon.com. If you don't already own a copy, this would be a great time to hop over to Amazon and snap a copy up!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

And in the Children’s Section, We Have…

Okay, I admit it. One of my favorite visual sources for information on the Middle Ages is children’s books.

If you want to know exactly how a castle was built, you can’t beat David Macaulay’s Castle. Why this book insists on being filed almost exclusively in the children’s section of bookstores (along with its companion volumes, Cathedral, City, Underground, and Pyramid, only the first of which actually fits our time period) remains a mystery to me. Yes, it won the Caldecott Honor Medal, which is undoubtedly why libraries and bookstores place it where they do, but it’s such an invaluable resource to adults as well, that if it does not occur to one to wander occasionally into the children’s section to browse the history books, a would-be writer/researcher might never stumble across it.

The Preface to Castles reads:

“Lord Kevin’s castle, although imaginary, is based in concept, structural process, and physical appearance on several castles built to aid in the conquest of Wales between 1277 and 1305. Their planning and construction epitomized over two centuries of military engineering and accomplishments throughout Europe and the Holy Land.

“The town of Aberwyvern, also imaginary, is based in concept and physical appearance on towns founded in conjunction with castles in Wales during the same twenty-eight year period. This combination of castle and town in a military program displays both superior strategical skill and farsightedness required for truly successful conquest.”

Macaulay provides outstanding sketches throughout the book in addition to verbal descriptions, to assist those of us who are still awaiting an opportunity to visit a “real” castle in England. (Or France, or Spain, or Italy…) Do you want to know the difference between an arrow loop and a typical castle window? Just flip to pages 30 and 31, and voila! You couldn’t ask for a clearer mental picture to incorporate into your own stories.

Exactly where was the castle dungeon, and how did one access it? Check out page 40.

Remember our castle garrison from The Castle Explorer’s Guide? If you’d like to know where their living quarters were and what they were like, you can find a description on page 54 of Castles.

Many, many more treasures await you in this book. But unless you search for it online, you’ll have to wander into the children’s section of bookstore or library to find it!

Bonus: Castle, hosted by David Macaulay, is also available as a DVD, available on Amazon.com.

Another of my favorite children’s resources is A Medieval Castle: Inside Story by Fiona Macdonald and Mark Bergin. Through colorful illustrations, this book describes: “A Day in the Life of a Workman” (crafters/builders)—literally—by breaking the pictures and short descriptions into “time increments”. When did the worker arise? 5:30 am. What was he doing by 7 am, by 7:15 am, by 7:30 am, by 8:30 am, clear through till bedtime about 10 pm? Page 11 of A Medieval Castle will break it all down for you.

What did medieval farmers do in January, February, March, April, May, and on through the end of the medieval year? Look up “The Farmer’s Year” on page 23 of A Medieval Castle.

Of course, there are also sections on “The World of the Castle”, “Food and Drink”, “Meals and Manners”, “The Village Fair”, “Hunting and Hawking”, “Tournaments”, and many, many more fascinating subjects, all beautifully illustrated to help your imagination along.

A Medieval Castle (Inside Story) is, like many of my favorite books, no longer in print, but can be bought used on Amazon.com and undoubtedly a
Google search on the title will lead you to other buying options.

If you find yourself stumped to know how to describe, let’s say, a medieval castle kitchen in your fiction, you can’t beat children’s books for a wealth of pictorial ideas. I once drew on a picture of exactly that…a “typical” medieval kitchen from The Oxford Children’s History of Britain: The Middle Ages, by Roy Burrell. There was a boy sorting through a basket of fish, another man boiling fish in a huge iron cauldron, and what particularly leaped out of the picture at me were the two dead geese with their heads dangling over the edge of the table, undoubtedly waiting to be plucked and dressed and served to the lord of the castle for dinner. I wrote a kitchen scene employing a verbal description of snippets of that picture (including the geese with the dangling heads) in my medieval novel, Loyalty’s Web. Sadly, I ultimately had to take out the dangling geese heads during a later word cutting edit, but the fish remain an active part of my scene, as those of you who have read my novel will find on page 29 of Loyalty’s Web.

Again, The Oxford Children’s History of Britain: The Middle Ages is no longer in print, but used copies can be found on Amazon, Alibris, and probably other online book dealers if you Google the title.

However, if you can’t find a copy, there are probably many, many more current, in print books of similar usefulness if you’ll only take the time to visit the children’s history section the next time you wander into a bookstore. (And don’t forget, there’s always your friendly neighborhood public library, too!)

One caveat: Children’s books on the Middle Ages often address their subject with broad, general strokes. If you’re writing a period-specific story, you’ll need to double check the “facts” in these books, to be sure they line up with the era of your own story. For example, jousting (a popular feature of children’s books) did not become a part of the tournament until the 1200s. If you’re writing in the 1100s, you’ll have to stick to the mêlée. Plate armor also came into use much later than the 1100s, so you’ll need to stick to chain mail, regardless of the armor described as “medieval” in an illustrated children’s book. In other words, just double check to be sure the information is historically compatible with the medieval era your story is placed in, and you’ll be fine.